Objective: This part of the seminar will briefly introduce common principles of course design. Afterward, you should be able to describe some general principles and processes of effective course design.
Designing courses can be a meaningful experience for many teachers. For those of us who pursue advanced academic study and research, designing courses in our field or area of specialty can feel like an extension of other scholarly work. Designing and teaching courses gives us an opportunity to demonstrate our knowledge of and enthusiasm for our disciplines.
But our expertise also can create pressure to get the content portion of our courses "just right," and this can sometimes feel like our priority should be pouring all the things we know about a topic into our course plan. This is especially true for graduate students and other new teachers. Similarly, we often feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to our content and our discipline (and perhaps even to our departments) that can sometimes lead to the belief that we must "cover" as much "content" as possible during class time. After all, isn't that why students come to learn from us?
For many of us, our first attempts at designing courses involved starting with a big list of the "content" that must be covered (e.g., readings, imagines, concepts, formulas, etc.), a list of all the things we happened to know about the topic, and the semester calendar of course meetings or sessions. In a coverage-based approach, instructors diligently plug in readings and concepts and lectures until the calendar is filled up (and wring their hands over what to do with all the content that doesn't fit!). Then, they slot in some due dates for major assignments (which may or may not be fully thought out at this point), package the whole thing up nicely, and hand students a syllabus that conveys what will be covered and what will be due over the course of the semester. That is, we articulate what they will be doing in the course, but we don't always clearly articulate what those things will be doing for them.
Are you teaching if no one is learning?
However, in recent decades, course design models have shifted to focus more on learning and less on coverage, for a variety of reasons: the list of things considered "essential content" continues to grow for most disciplines, and some have argued that it is now (perhaps always has been) impossible to "cover" everything we might want to in a single course. Additionally, the changing expectations for accreditation and accountability in higher education continue to evolve and to exert pressure on universities and academic departments to focus more on student learning - that is, what students will know and be able to do upon leaving a course, a curriculum, a program.
In fact, the distinction between designing courses for coverage and designing courses for learning is somewhat false. Teachers always have been committed to student learning. As the clichéd old question asks: are you teaching if no one is learning? And many instructors design courses that both cover content and facilitate student learning. The question is: how?
Ultimately, Fink argues that, for significant learning to occur, there must be an ongoing interchange amongst and between these elements of course design. This may be different from the way many of us actually design courses.
Often, even those of us who design courses intentionally around student learning defer decisions about specific teaching and learning activities and/or assessment methods until we have to make them during the semester. But this deferral can create challenges. For example, if we don't make decisions about teaching and learning activities and assessment methods as we are designing learning objectives, we risk assigning activities that are not actually aligned to our learning objectives. This means we may not prepare students to achieve the learning objectives we've set and/or that we may not assess student work as effectively as we could and/or that our students experience our classes a series of disconnected, seemingly purposeless tasks to get through.
Our discussion about course design processes and principles, then, is meant to foreground the importance of thinking in an intentionally integrative way about learning objectives, teaching and learning activities, and assessment methods - every time you design a course. This does not mean that you must work out every single teaching and learning activity you might wish to use even before the course begins, but it does mean you have to be aware of the relationships between the goals you have for student learning and the strategies by which you strive to help them achieve those goals.
At a minimum, then, give some thought to three key questions:
If you can begin to answer these questions, you're ready to begin designing courses for learning. For the rest of this seminar, we'll focus our attention largely on the first question.
The shift from teaching to learning:
Barr, R. B. & Tagg, J. (1995). From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change Magazine, 27 (6): 12-25.
Designing courses for learning:
Fink, L.D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Prégent, R. (2000). Charting your course: How to prepare to teach more effectively. Madison, WI: Atwood Publishing.
Weimer, M. (2002). Learner-centered teaching: Five key changes to practice. San Fransciso, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Wiggins, G., & McTighe, J. (2005). Understanding by design (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.